Chapter

American Graffiti: The Social Life of Jim Crow Signs

Elizabeth Abel

in Signs of the Times

Published by University of California Press

Published in print June 2010 | ISBN: 9780520261174
Published online March 2012 | e-ISBN: 9780520945869 | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1525/california/9780520261174.003.0002
American Graffiti: The Social Life of Jim Crow Signs

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This chapter examines the material history of Jim Crow signs, their tangible forms, and circuits of transmission. Tracing the signs' “biography” across the twentieth century, it discusses how, through whose agency, and in what material manifestations they appeared on, disappeared from, and reappeared in the United States. It places Jim Crow signs in conversation not with the intellectual history of the racial sign, but with other forms of public signage that bring into focus racial segregation's distinctive modes and spectrum of expression. In contrast to the standardization of commercial signage, Jim Crow's perversely populist production encouraged idiosyncratic and self-revealing forms of utterance that were especially apparent to the signs' primary addressees—and to their eventual preservers, collectors, and consumers. By juxtaposing two stages in the signs' life history—their production at the turn of the twentieth century and their reproduction at the turn of the twenty-first century, when an industry emerged to meet the growing demand for ownership, primarily among African Americans—this chapter explores how race has been configured through the signs' production and recirculation as commodities.

Keywords: Jim Crow signs; material history; transmission; United States; public signage; racial segregation; commercial signage; production; African Americans; recirculation

Chapter.  11528 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History of the Americas

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